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How External Insights Can Improve Employee Learning

David’s insights

The art of looking

I used to deliver an innovation module as part of an MBA qualification. I mention it in the book a few times and it is something I am immensely proud of. I mention this here because I want you to take a moment to think, what is truly innovative? I am sure the success of the module was because I did something ‘out of the norm’ right from the start. I was clear from the beginning, I could not ‘lecture’ on an innovation module, it clashed with my belief system of what learning and development was. The unit had a model developed by Paul Burns that really drew me in. It was a typical four-box grid that is so beloved by many in the industry and titled “ ingredients of failure”. The four boxes had the titles “business decisions”, “company weaknesses”, “external environment” and “entrepreneurial character”. It is a model that got the group talking, turning around the ingredients of failure and labelling the ingredients of success. Burns put in the middle of the four boxes the word ‘luck’. This word grated on me; although he makes a great argument in his book, the word for me just felt strange being there. The group debated this arguing in favour of Burns, of me, of neither, of both. Then someone in the group shouted, “what if you substituted the word ‘luck’ for ‘LOOK’?”

Suddenly the group got excited, and we debated that change for quite a while after. This story resonates still, some 12 years later, and it is a key element that has helped me approach the book.

When I contacted Steve for help, I had the basics of my idea laid out. He said to me that any book needs to have a number of ingredients: who is the audience and why would they find this useful?; what are the start and end point?; what do you want the readers to feel as they read the book?; what do you want the readers to learn?

Adapting ideas to work for you

We had the idea of doing an A-Z format. We came up with three words for each letter of the alphabet (entrance, energy and emotion for e and hope, hype and humour for h, as examples). The evolution of that first set of thoughts to the final published book took a number of iterations. Removing the A-Z element has allowed us to focus on the self and the audience and, most importantly, it led us to the framework. Our framework is essentially a series of questions that allow someone to work through how they can use learning from one aspect of their life and apply it in another. It also allows L&D professionals to help people see the strengths the workforce has. In addition, candidates can use it as preparation for interviews in roles that may not at first glance appear to be ‘for them’. The uses are vast.

Looking for insights from new areas

The road to publishing has caused both Steve and me to ‘look’ at our book in a number of different ways. This has played out in our roles too. The insights we gained from the world of the arts have helped us look at several things differently. It has confirmed things, challenged thinking, allowed us to explore the purpose of our roles through different lenses and provide practical insights to the challenge that is espoused in a number of arenas - learning needs to learn from other areas of the business.

The title question of this article - ‘how external insights can improve employee learning’ - rests with one fundamental belief: we are more than our job descriptions. In organizations, we very quickly become immersed in our role. The demands of the tasks in hand, the processes we follow, the people we interact with and the pressure of time, all lead to a reduction in time spent getting tasks done.

Our book provides a few anecdotes of how practitioners use their learning in one arena to be better in their current roles. In the very early days of my career, the organization I worked for brought in an external training company to deliver a behaviour-based course. The one thing I remember was an image on the overhead projector. It was two hands on either side of a brain. The only writing on the acetate were the words “with every pair of hands you hire, you get a brain!”

Steve talks a lot about how the ‘human’ element is missing in learning. How can this be? Learning is a fundamental human trait, it “ is our USP”.

Steve’s insights

Listening is key to learning

David’s description of the human elements being missing from learning resonates with me strongly. One of the things I’ve written in the book is how I apply some of what I’ve learned from studying psychology, mental health and counselling in some of the work I do around coaching and team dynamics.

This, for me, is an example of how external insights can improve employee learning. By way of demonstration, one of the first things I learned was active listening. Really listening. Allowing space for silence and knowing when to ask a prompt to engage further. Alongside this is the concept that a conversation doesn’t have to have a resolution: not every challenge demands an immediate fix, and the fix has to be found, developed by the individual and not imposed.

This has reaped huge benefits for me as a manager in my work context. Developing and practising the skill of hearing people and not just the words they say, takes the pressure off myself - and them. This enables us to dive into finding solutions before unpicking whatever the cause of an action or response is, so we can understand better why it happened and prevent a recurrence.

Where do we start?

So external insights are always going to be good and beneficial, right?

Not necessarily, or at least it is not quite as straightforward as that. Something I’ve come to realize through writing the book is that in the same way, any AI programme or app is only going to be as good as the data that gets fed into it, so our external insights require a level of rigour and application of discretion in deciding what we’ll use, what’s applicable and what can be discarded. It’s also absolutely vital that we’re not embedding examples to prove a point because nothing undermines using examples from outside our organizational context to support or give a new direction to our thinking so much as confirmation bias.

And this is where the framework comes in, to apply some rigour and discretion and validate against some of the confirmation bias that can creep in when we excitedly think we’ve found something useful or interesting.

Our encouragement is to start with the things you do that you may not realise are applications of external learning. Use this as the springboard to explore further in your world and then go further – build a broad data set with wide points of reference and give yourself the best chance of finding learning from outside your organization to bring in.

Look to others for inspiration

The most incredible data analyst I’ve ever met was an engineer. She taught me (and many others) more that can be applied to L&D and HR analytics than I have learnt from specialist L&D analytics learning material. Were it not for a series of serendipitous events leading to my engaging with this expert through my role, my capability in what is an increasingly core skill for our profession would have been limited. I have found that one of the joys of my learning and development role is now bringing that person’s expertise to more people.

Utilize adjacent communities to your advantage

We call on examples from film and theatre in Adjacent Learning simply because it’s an appropriate reference point that has inspired and influenced us throughout our lives. By doing this, we believe we demonstrate how one adjacent community – a narrow subsection of the arts – can provide a vast resource for anyone wishing to find insights they can bring into their profession.

For example, one of the film scenes most re-enacted in the playground of my childhood was itself an example of adjacent learning and the application of a skillset learned to perform one task in a different context. That film? The Karate Kid. Most who have seen it will remember the phrase “wax on, wax off” as Daniel is tasked with cleaning Mr Miyagi’s car, and how that same motion of waxing the car translates into a karate move to block a punch.

Having been introduced to the concept of adjacent communities through working with inspiring colleagues from a range of professional backgrounds, I can’t help but see it everywhere both for bringing into my own practice and also for the work of others. My sincere wish is that those who read the book find their ‘vision’ unlocked in the same way.

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